What Gordon Burn taught me: Write, write write, day and night

The week before the first winner of the inaugural Gordon Burn Prize is announced, novelist Ben Myers remembers the pilgrimage he made to Burn's remote home in the Scottish borders.

Haunted is one word I would use to describe Gordon Burn’s writing. Forensic is another. Across a substantial body of work that spans journalism, criticism, biography and fiction – often simultaneously - characters real and imaged drift and merge through a landscape we recognise but don’t always like to acknowledge that we inhabit.

Because Burn’s writing is not concerned with anything as ethereal as the spirit world but rather something far more disturbing: contemporary Britain, and all of its – all of our - obsessions. Crime, celebrity, corruption, sport, the media, modern art – all provide inspiration for Burn’s unique approach to storytelling. And all of it feels haunted: haunted by man’s potential, for good and unbelievably bad, and all observed in forensic detail.

Though Burn died in 2009 I can only ever use the present tense to describe his work. Whether considering the big themes of life, death and all the cruelties and disappointment inbetween or cataloguing the shimmering surfaces and minutiae of modernity his writing is so full of life that it lives on way beyond the past tense. Transcends it, in fact.

Even when digging deep into the darkest recesses of the human psyche - as he did in his 1984 portrait of Peter Sutcliffe, Somebody's Husband, Somebody's Son, which reached beyond the tabloid perceptions of evil to offer a poignant, studied and - yes - forensic portrait - or in Happy Like Murderers, the diabolical account of Fred and Rose West, two of life’s losers who made the leap from abused to abuser, Burn found life. His posthumously published collection of writing on modern art’s finest – Gilbert and George and Damien and Tracey - Sex & Violence, Death & Silence is the work of a man in love with life; in love with art’s ability to go beyond words.

Burn’s particular fascination with the alienating tendencies of celebrity and, perhaps more intriguingly, what comes after celebrity, was ahead of its time and his ability to transpose real people into imagined settings an influence on a new generation of writers, most notably David Peace who recently described Burn’s work as an on-going “argument between reality and imagination”. Certainly reading Burn’s debut novel Alma Cogan gave me the courage to write my first novel Richard, a novelisation of the disappearance of musician Richey Edwards.

As a shortlisted author for the inaugural Gordon Burn Prize, which recognises fiction or non-fiction which “most successfully represents the spirit and sensibility of Gordon's literary methods ... literature which challenges perceived notions of genre”, I recently spent time in Burn’s remote holiday home in the Scottish borders completing a novel of my own - a book set in the rural north, about murder, vice and corruption.

Six miles from the nearest shop with the River Dye running by the window and the nearby dark woods oscillating with the cooing of thousands of wood pigeons, it was an inspiring but also daunting experience. The remoteness was not a problem (I live in the windswept Pennines and generally feel like Crocodile Dundee in cities) but there was no getting around the fact: occupying the space left behind by a towering figure whose work casts a long shadow across your own is both strangely exhilarating and intimidating.

Here I was surrounded by the personal effects of a man whose work inspired me to write in the first place: the notes in the margins of other books (“Ray’s memory?” penned on a page in JB Priestley’s An English Journey, was clearly the club singer Ray Cruddas from 2003 novel The North of England Home Service taking shape before my very eyes); scribbles in his own books explaining to future readers his intentions; his DVDs of kitchen sink realist films; original art by the likes of Peter Blake and Michael Landy, and his collection of Jade Goody biographies.

How not to feel overawed – but inspired too? Where Burn’s writing so often zooms in on the fine detail – the possessions, trinkets, and totems that comprise the ephemera of all our lives - in time I found myself cataloguing those possessions which fed into his work. And when that was done and the dog was walked there was nothing else to do but write. Write, write, write. Day and night.

I don’t believe in ghosts but I do know that spaces can hold memories and I know that as creatures with finely tuned senses we react to our surroundings. Observing the life of Gordon Burn through his work and his home without ever having met him felt like rare privilege – a glimpse into the world of a true talent whose literary influence, one suspects, is only going to grow over the coming years.

Gordon Burn presented a "haunted" vision of Britain. Photograph: Sarah Lee.

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era